You might love a film about unspeakably wealthy whiteboy stock traders that opens by quoting Biggie Smalls. Then again, you might hate it. The citation is surely reverent, but it also reveals a certain confusion concerning early Biggie rhymes, and maybe hip-hop in general. The deal is this: Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) begins his voice-over narration while you’re looking at urban street shots and listening to some sophisticated scratching. Then comes the invocation, a line from Biggie’s “Things Done Changed,” in which he sagely observes that to get out of the ghetto, there are precious few options: “Either you’re slingin crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Seth says that since he has no jump shot, he’s doing what he sees as the equivalent of slinging crack: hardselling stocks over the phone.
Even before he gets to Biggie, Seth notes other examples of getting over. He tells you he’s read an article about the millionaire Microsoft employees, seen stories about a lottery winner and a “kid” action star. His covetous list makes sense in the era of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?: it’s comprised of stories about getting rich superquick, and the means are irrelevant. What’s most interesting in Seth’s monologue, however, is that he closes it with Biggie’s story, the one that seems to have the most at stake, the one about escaping the violence and hopelessness of the underclass and off the streets. It’s the story that is so familiar in hip-hop but, until recently (when it was revealed to have a target demographic with disposable income), usually left out of mainstream media. And Seth identifies with this feeling, this yearning to move up and on, to escape his bleak origins.
Indeed, the movie is all about this desire to escape. But consider the move Seth wants to make. He’s the nineteen-year-old son of a supportive mom (Donna Mitchell) and stiff and unforgiving father, Marty (Ron Rifkin), a well-to-do New York judge whom Seth adores and wants fiercely to please. He’s freshly dropped out of college and running a casino out of his Queens apartment, making a good living, even if it is vaguely illegal. And he’s imagining himself as looking for a way out the “ghetto.”
As Seth tells it, he finds this way in “the boiler room,” or more specifically, a fly-by-night Long Island brokerage firm named J.T. Marlin. Initially, he’s lured by Greg (Nicky Katt), a natty dresser who sweeps into his casino one night and bets large. Impressed, Seth listens when Greg extols the virtues of his lucrative career, and before long, Seth’s recruited into the newest pack of cash-lusting white boys (and Jewish boys, for this is the other part of Seth’s origin story), trained and then licensed, by way of a slippery state exam system, to sell stocks real, not-so-real, made-up, failing to poor schlubs who don’t have a clue what to do with their money. The movie slams home this point about the meanness of Seth’s venture by showing you repeated scenes featuring his number-one schlub, a nemby-looking office worker (Taylor Nichols, of Whit Stillman films fame) who loses his savings, wifey, and kids because he listens to his reckless and unscrupulous broker, because that broker Seth challenges his masculinity.
Seth’s learning curve also includes taking time to spar with his mentor Greg, admire the film’s seductively boyish head honchos Jim (Ben Affleck) and Michael (Tom Everett Scott), and make friends with a decent middle-echelon broker (decent compared to Greg, but who isn’t?), Chris (Vin Diesel). On his initiation day, Seth listens in awe with the rest of the newbies as the fabulously wealthy Jim inspires them: “Anybody who tells you that money is the root of all evil doesn’t have it.” It doesn’t hurt that the office secretary is the gorgeous Abby (Nia Long) or that she immediately seems to take a cotton to Seth for reasons unknown (except, of course, that he’s the lead and she’s coming off some kind of unbelievable relationship with the ineffably slimy Greg). Soon enough, they’re dating and we’re seeing the occasional scene back at the apartment she shares with her bedridden mother, just enough back story to make you feel like Abby the film’s sole young (read: unmarried) female or black character has been treated “right” by the film.
All of this isn’t to say that Boiler Room is an unself-conscious or ignorant film: in fact, it appears that first-time writer-director Ben Younger did all kinds of research on boiler rooms and their occupants, then applied a standard (and sellable) “narrative arc” to it: Seth starts out at something resembling a low rung, achieves success but retains his skepticism, falls in love, then has to learn a hard lesson while sorting out the nuances of betrayal and loyalty: in other words, there’s an unmissable moral here. As played by the engaging Ribisi, who has never looked pastier or more strangely resilient than he does here, Seth is a compelling character, no doubt. That he’s surrounded by cardboard types is not his fault, but it does detract from whatever complexities might exist in his trajectory: it becomes harder and harder to care for him as his father gets dragged into a scam, his mother sneaks phone calls to him from her perfectly appointed kitchen, a couple of feds decide to take down the firm using Seth as their reluctant snitch, and Greg turns into something of a diabolic caricature.
Eventually, all this schematic unbelievability rubs off on Seth. And that’s too bad, because for a long time, Younger’s movie gets by on its sense of urgency and its nerve, seducing viewers with its own hardsell tactics: the camera swoops and hovers and cuts fast, never quite letting you see into any one character, but hinting at motives and aspirations through quick shots of eager, strained, and too-sated faces, fearful and titillated. It’s all a little dizzying visually, and the film does well to expose how fun the whole business seems, the giddy long hours, partying with like-minded toy-hooligans, backslapping fellow nerds. The film doesn’t pretend these guys are too smart: they get their asses whipped in a dissing context with a table full of gay men at an NYC restaurant. When one of the Marlin guys suggests that “they” should all be dumped on an island together, the target replies, with appropriate disdain, “You’re on it!”
In other words, the Marlin workers are quite aware of and anxious about the fact that they haven’t made it by regular channels, they didn’t complete school or get hired by the upscale firms, that they’re losers, suddenly and miraculously granted the trappings of winners. The film also shows that they are media products, only conscious of what they might desire if they’ve seen it advertised somewhere. Stunned by their good fortune, they’re functioning on speed and a kind of willful blindness, with a mantra lifted from David Mamet’s early ‘90s wannabes’ wet-dream, Glengarry Glen Ross: “ABC” (“Always be closing” ). As Seth observes, these kids make so much money so fast that they don’t know what to do with it. During one scene, the core crew gathers at someone’s new home, barely furnished except for a few outrageous art pieces and a huge-screen TV. Scrunched together on the couch, they drink beers and watch Wall Street, doing Michael Douglas’s lines with him, looking for approval from their buddies, every one of them desperate to be cool or content, or more accurately, to look like he is.
But while Boiler Room is running all this by you, showing you how pleasurable but also corruptive it is to spend endless money and time like frat boys might, another theme is simmering, right below the surface. And Seth’s opening monologue gives a key to this theme, in its attention not only to getting or being rich, but to the stories themselves. The film like the culture which produces it is at least as fascinated with celebrity as with wealth. Seth recounts reading about the Microsoft secretaries with winner stock options, seeing pictures of the grounds keeper with his Ferrari. He’s impressed by the coverage as much as by the fact of their prosperity. Seth’s narration invites you to identify with his desire, to feel with him, that such affluence by surprise is something to be admired and celebrated for its own sake.
Part of what makes it attractive for the boys from New York and Long Island is, of course, that they get to play dirty, to be outlaws without costs (at least at first, until the movie’s heavy-handed morality playing kicks in). The movie makes this yearning clear in its thumpingly splendid soundtrack, which never lets off its first hip-hop groove, featuring tracks by Rakim, Tribe, Lords of the Underground, Esthero, OC, Ugly Duckling, and De La Soul. This soundtrack might seem, at first listen, ridiculous and disconnected from the action (the guys don’t even play rap on their cd players). But the soundtrack is also impeccable, as it embodies all the desire and frustration that these characters can’t imagine how to express.
From a distance, and as a metaphor, hip-hop conveys the characters’ self-images, even if they don’t know it or articulate it, hip-hop expresses for them the play-acting they’re doing, thinking all the while that they’re for real. And in itself, hip-hop that most immediate and crucial cultural expression of desire is here revealed in its several mutations, absorbed and spit back out in marketable mainstream forms, but also real enough, broken down to its sources. In the peculiar context of Boiler Room, then, hip-hop becomes simultaneously domesticated and dicey, beyond the protagonists’ comprehension and a dead-on signifier that they are so proudly and so wrongly seeing themselves as rebels sticking it to “the man.” The soundtrack reveals what the characters can’t understand, that they can refashion themselves as rebels precisely because they are privileged. And they can’t see that they are “the man.”